Academic journal article China Perspectives

Programming Practices of Chinese Code Farmers

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Programming Practices of Chinese Code Farmers

Article excerpt

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At the meetings of the 2017 National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the Beijing government reiterated the "Internet Plus" action plan ("Huliarwang+"xingdongjihua ...). According to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, "Internet Plus" entails the integration of mobile Internet, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things (wu lianwang ...) with manufacturing. The aim of this policy is to promote innovation-driven development, foster new industries, cultivate entrepreneurial individuals, and upgrade China from a "big industrial country" to a "creative country."

As China's economic growth slows after two decades of rapid expansion, Beijing is concertedly seeking strategies to bolster the economy. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) fits this bill. Through a clarion call to combine Internet technology with modern manufacturing, the Chinese Government is trying to foster a broad "Creative Society" (chuangxin xing shehui ßßlttfi#) and realise its "Chinese Dream" (Zhongguo meng ...). With the government's relentless support for the IT industry over the past three decades, China is currently at the acme of its tech boom. The world has witnessed the breakneck emergence of an "IT dragon" that is largely supported by a huge cheap labour force and a massive churning out of copycat products. As China connects itself closer to the global digital revolution, the global open source movement and maker movement have also had a great impact on its IT prosperity. Transnational IT companies, hackerspaces, and open source communities are cross-pollinating with China, making the IT vista even more diverse.

By the end of 2014, China's ICT market output reached US$204 billion (see Figure 1), accounting for 1.9% of China's GDP. Software has become a fast-growing sector as China establishes itself as one of the most important countries for ICT production and consumption. In 2013, software production in China accounted for 25% of the total ICT industry and 13.4% of the global software market. Based on Gartner's report,(1) China has been the world's second largest software producer since 2013.

The convergence of technology production, political discourse, and general public entrepreneurship enables new areas of research. Previous literature has addressed China's ICT development on the macro level (e.g., Segal 2003; Zhao 2007), while a mesi- or micro-lens on individual and contextualised IT practices has received less attention. To fill this gap, this paper examines China's ICTs by particularly focusing on individual programmers' work practices. Programmers, especially those from small companies in China, are also referred to as "manog which literally translates as "code farmers" in English. In Chinese, ma (ī9) means code, while nong (...) refers to traditional Chinese farmers who have limited education, who are frequently dispossessed of power, and are frequently overlooked. When combined, the word "manon" depicts a position related to programming and coding that is also subject to frequent exploitation and high pressure.

Through the lens of an ethnographic study in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, this article explores digital experience of Chinese manon in IT companies. While it addresses IT practices in a more detailed way, the paper does not overlook the inseparable relations among individual programmers, social institutions, and technology. By introducing stories and discourses from the fieldwork in Shenzhen IT companies, this article illustrates the mixed role technology plays in programmers' technological experience as well as in remaking their subjectivity. The paper argues that technology itself cannot be fully understood without considering its essential sociopolitical and socioeconomic character.

Why are technicians such as programmers important? From a historical perspective, the narratives of technology tend to regard its development through isolated physical artefacts or visible things, while little attention is paid to the people behind it. …

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